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Taliban threat could skew Pakistan election result

Monday - 4/22/2013, 3:06am  ET

In this Wednesday, April 17, 2013, photo, Pakistani vendor Sayyid Mohammed, 46, who fled his home in Pakistan's tribal area of Bajur, due to fighting between the Taliban and the army, and took refuge in Rawalpindi, dusts off sun glasses he's displaying for sale, along with other items, while waiting for customers on a roadside in Islamabad, Pakistan. Moderate politicians from some of Pakistan’s most violent areas are defying the threat of violence to run in upcoming nationwide elections, but they’re increasingly turning to social media and phone calls that allow them to campaign from a distance. Election posters on wall show Tariq Fazal Chaudhary, below, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League political party, and the leader of the party and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, top. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

ASIF SHAHZAD
Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Moderate politicians from some of Pakistan's most violent areas are risking the threat of Taliban attack to run in upcoming nationwide elections, but they are increasingly being forced to rely on social media, phone calls and even short documentaries that allow them to campaign at a distance.

That could give hard-line Islamic candidates and Taliban supporters an advantage as they're able to stump for votes and hold large public rallies that are a traditional hallmark of elections in the country but are extremely vulnerable to attacks.

One of the most serious attacks occurred Tuesday, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a meeting of the secular Awami National Party in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 16 people. The Taliban said the target of the attack was Haroon Ahmad Bilour, whose father, a senior party leader, was killed in a suicide bombing in Peshawar in December. He escaped unscathed, but his uncle, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, suffered minor injuries.

As he was being treated at the hospital, the uncle vowed that he and other party candidates would not withdraw from the election despite the death threats. With his trousers soaked in blood, he walked among the hospital beds to comfort crying victims and told them, "We are fighting a war for Pakistan's survival."

Hours earlier, a candidate from one of the Islamic parties, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, campaigned freely in his constituency in a different part of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Maulana Jalil Jan's supporters showered him with rose petals as he walked unguarded from shop to shop down narrow, crowded lanes to ask for votes. He bristled at any suggestion that the Taliban were terrorists and blamed attacks in the country on foreign agents seeking to "malign religious leaders, all bearded people." He pointed out that the word Taliban simply means a student in an Islamic school.

"There is a difference between the Taliban and terrorists," said Jan.

Faced with the Taliban threat, parties have had to get more creative in their campaigning for the May 11 vote. Members of the Awami National Party and other secular political parties specifically targeted by the Pakistani Taliban have stepped up their use of Facebook and Twitter as well as phone calls and advertisements.

Analysts and secular party candidates fear that the danger could skew election results in favor of hard-line Islamic parties and others who refuse to speak out strongly against the Taliban. Their candidates are able to campaign with much less fear of being attacked, and the concern is this could lead to national and provincial governments inclined to take a softer position toward the militants.

"If you tie my hands, and you want me to fight, I can't," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a candidate from the Awami National Party, sitting in his heavily guarded office in Peshawar.

Hussain is running for a provincial assembly seat in the town of Pabbi, which is only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Peshawar, but it is too dangerous for him to campaign there in person. To get around the danger, Hussain produced a short documentary that highlights development work he has brought to Pabbi and chronicles the sad loss of his only son, who was gunned down by Taliban militants in 2010.

The documentary shows Hussain standing in prayer over the freshly dug grave of his son as a heartfelt poem he wrote in the young man's memory is sung out in mournful tones: "I never knew the enemy could reach my home, my heart, my love would disappear in a grave." He distributes it on DVDs to voters in Pabbi and plans to show the short film there using a couple of big projectors.

Hussain was attacked himself by a suicide bomber at his son's funeral in Pabbi. He survived, but seven other people were killed, including two of his close relatives.

The politician's eyes teared up as he watched the images of his son's grave in the documentary. The film asks his constituents to "vote for those who are sacrificing their lives to save you and your children from terrorists."

It's not only the top Islamic parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami that seem to have been spared by the Taliban in the run-up to the election, but also mainstream parties perceived to take a softer stance on militancy, such as the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is favored to come out on top in the election, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. They have all safely held public rallies attended by thousands of people in recent weeks.

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